Longer Observation (21): Deep Cures: Traditional wisdom says that the Lord heals, not doctors. In our times, when medicine is charging ahead recording remarkable successes in its crusade against suffering, is there any place for this old wisdom? In discussing this question I will be focusing on psychological suffering.

Traditionally, devout Jews and Christians suffering psychological pain, could pick up the Old Testament and read that it is the Lord who "heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds" (Psalm 147:3), that He is "close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit" (Psalm 34:19). In ancient times you were instructed to sacrifice if you wanted to capture the Lord's attention and gain His favor. The author of Psalm 51:19 presents the radical idea that "a broken spirit, a heart broken and crushed" is a sufficient sacrifice for the Lord. 

Nowadays it is customary for people who feel broken and crushed, even if they are believers, to turn to mental health professionals. They will be given some combination of psychotherapy and psychiatric medication. In a moment we will pick up this line of thought. What we will say is based on the following four observations of the author.

  • I have come to believe, from over 30 years of experience in psychology, that deep psychological pains almost never go away. They linger. If time heals some wounds, it appears to me that it doesn't, by itself, heal all wounds, especially the most severe. Over the years severe pains pile up, one on the other, layer on layer. These pains remain in the deepest layers of our archaeologies, and psychological excavations reveal them living whole and well.
  • Suffering, after a while, usually becomes unconscious. The suffering person can become so used to the feelings that they come to believe they are aren't suffering (see the Law of Adaptation). When we are suffering, other people may see what we can't. They see us struggling with our pain, going through endless songs and dances meant to cover up and prove to ourselves and others that we are fine. Even if others think we are fine, even if we are not sitting around and moping, even if we are functioning normally and maybe even at a high level, even if we are social successes, the pain remains and continues exerting an effect. We can compensate for our suffering. We can, with an ongoing act of will, act cheerfully. We can adopt the philosophy of "Fake it until you make it" and believe it is true. We can do all these things, but we can't cure our deep pains through efforts of will.
  • And reasoning can not cure deep pain. We may be able to convince ourselves, for a moment, that we are being irrational and silly to see things as we do. And the rational approach may work with small problems, but reason is like the little Dutch boy's finger in the dyke. Rational thought is work. Even when it is effective, we can't keep up the effort forever. Sooner or later we will relax and our thoughts and feelings will flood back. Even if we are busy all day, and we manage tin a way that absorbs us completely, when we fall asleep we dream and our memories and deeper feelings flood back into us. The past day, if we remember it at all, itself feels like a dream and a form of sleep.
  • The situation with medication (and illegal drugs)  is slightly different. Using medication for suffering is like using a club. You can hit someone on the head with a club, and they will become unconscious and stop feeling pain, but is this a cure? Is this a healing? It is like using an anesthetic to get rid of psychological agony. It is possible to make it disappear completely by administering, for example, a dose of Propofol, as Michael Jackson was able to do. This may, to some, be an answer, but who would say it is a cure? A cure preserves consciousness. It does not take away consciousness. Medication, even if it "works" is a form of psychological suicide; it deadens. If we grant they have a place, we don't have to grant that they make us healthy. 

In my experience, to repeat, life's most painful experiences do not go away. They are alive deep within us and color our experiences and expectations and behavior. Real and true and complete cures are so rare that, when they occur, we can not help but think of them as miracles.

An example

A couple who has been struggling for years to produce their first child, find that the wife is pregnant. After seven months of pregnancy, there is a birth, but it is too early, and the fetus does not live for more than a few minutes. The couple is devastated and inconsolable from the loss of what would have been their daughter. They don't show their pain to others and go on with their lives. They learn to live with their pain and even to forget it. Then the husband has the following dream: The fetus (which he saw) becomes a hummingbird and flies straight up to the highest heaven, where it (she) flies around, free and happy, with other hummingbirds.

After this dream the man feels released from his pain. He never thinks of the event, or, if he does, it does not bring any pain. He has no need to try to get out of the pain, because it isn't there any more.

This, to my mind, is a true and real cure. Here are three relevant facts:

  1. The man struggled with his suffering over the months before the dream, and this was a kind of work, but there is no way it can be said that he made the dream or made himself have it. It came to him, as if from outside, as much as the sun in the morning comes to him.
  2. This kind of deep cure is rare.
  3. (Research shows that) the Aztecs of pre-colonial Mexico thought that infants who die become hummingbirds and fly to the highest, most special, heaven. Apparently the man, who knew nothing of the Aztec idea, had dreamed an archetypal dream, to use Jung's word (see What is an Archetype?).

However you and I might think of 1-3, whatever words we would now use to express these thoughts, in ancient, pre-psychological times, people would have said that 1-3 proved a supernatural healing, a miracle. 

Unhealed suffering

If I am right, most psychological agony is unconscious and unhealed. This is true for those who have been abused, physically or mentally. A child has a recurrent dream of a tidal wave coming towards him from the sea. These types of terrifying experiences, external or internal, do not go away. Perhaps we can, if we want, through an enormous expenditure of psychological energy (in or out of psychotherapy), expose images and feelings such as these and keep them close to consciousness. Perhaps we can bring ourselves to focus on them and to think about them. But, it is not within our means, or the means of our doctors, to heal these complexes. To use the old language, it is in the hands of the Lord.